It is a good thing that Pope Francis is moving us to ask ourselves what it means to be Catholic.
The complete name is Roman Catholic. But few Catholics call themselves that anymore. The word Roman now seems too old fashioned and unnecessary. It is there to remind us of our links to Constantine’s Rome. This link has to be qualified. The Roman emperor Constantine is after all remembered not just for legitimizing Catholicism with the Romans paving the way for it to become the state religion. He also moved the capital of Rome to a city he practically built himself. The city was Constantinople. It fell eventually to Islam. It is now called Istanbul.
Which only proves that nothing stays the same. Everything is subject to history. Everything changes one half-deliberate step at a time. Which would seem odd if we take Catholic to mean “universal” and if we take universal to mean immutable, meaning unchangeable. Since the birth of modernism in the late 1800s the word universal itself had come to a reassessment. It was taken to mean something different from what it would have meant to the ancient Greek philosophers. Words and their meanings change that way.
This change is not something to be feared. It is wonderful to countenance and dwell on. Words after all are not inevitably and irrevocably linked to the realities they represent. Humans construct words to signify only those realities which are immediately useful to them. When Westerners say “banana” they understand this to mean simply “banana.” It is a complete concept requiring no addition.
And yet for us, Filipinos, the word banana or saging signifies an incomplete concept which is not practically useful. The word saging must be qualified. What is it? Is it cardaba or lakatan? Is it for cooking or eating fresh? If lakatan, is it Davao export or native? The two are not the same. The native tastes so much better. It is saging of an absolutely different sort. But then the saging may also be tundan. If tundan, is it ordinary tundan or señorita? What for Westerners simply a banana is a whole universe for us.
Which only moves us to ask, what word do we have which comes closest to mean “universe”? The Bisayans have a wonderful word like that. The word is “kalibotan”, which is literally taken to mean “world”, a reference to the planet inclusive of the heavens, the stars, etc. Is it possible this word has evolved in meaning over the years? Its root is “libot” or palibot which literally means those things which are around us. When little Bisayan children mean to say “all over” they said “tibuok kalibotan”, which makes perfect sense since their premise was that there was nothing beyond their world. They are right in thinking this way even if in due time they will inevitably realize their world is an ever expanding world. It expands together with their expanding awareness. And they will change that way just as surely as that their world will change. So also changes the words they use to describe this world, their universe, their kalibotan.
And for Bisayan children, the world will always be “out there” to be explored and traveled to. It is their quaint position in the scheme of things. When they call themselves Catholic, they call themselves this in a quaint sort of way. They do not see themselves exactly the same way as a Western or Roman Catholic would.
What does it mean for them to be Catholic? The meaning of this word is changing even now. And it is for Filipino Catholics to define what it should mean and what it will mean in the future. Surely God has something to do with it, but mainly it is the job of contemporary Catholics to define what it means, not only for themselves but especially for the many among them who are poor.
For many people, Catholic means simply Catholic schools. This is usually qualified to mean expensive Catholic schools which only a few can afford. But then this is only historically understandable. The local Catholicism has always been defined by a set of feudal hierarchies. It has always been elitist. Thus, we have to ask who defines the local Catholicism? Is it the poor? Or is it the local elite?
The answer to this will give us clue as to whether or not the local Catholicism is resistant or open to change. Change may improve the church’s relevance not just to the elite but to the poor as well. And poor may be taken here to mean everyone who suffers condemnation, those who have been in the scheme of things marginalized. Pope Francis is asking us to think about them in a new way. The premise being that we might be missing something fundamental about our own Catholicism the way we look at them now. He raises inside us a prayer of humility, a meek acceptance of the possibility we may have been wrong until now.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.